White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday that she has no reason not to believe statements that Jennifer Willoughby and I have made about our ex-husband, former White House aide Rob Porter. I actually appreciated her saying that she at least did not NOT believe us.
But I was dismayed when Conway, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” went on to say that she does not fear for White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, who has reportedly been dating Porter. “I’ve rarely met somebody so strong with such excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts.”
Borrowing Conway’s words, I have no reason not to believe her when she says that Hicks is a strong woman. But her statement implies that those who have been in abusive relationships are not strong.
I beg to differ.
Recognizing and surviving in an abusive relationship take strength. The abuse can be terrifying, life-threatening and almost constant. Or it can ebb and flow, with no violence for long periods. It’s often the subtler forms of abuse that inflict serious, persistent damage while making it hard for the victim to see the situation clearly.
For me, living in constant fear of Rob’s anger and being subjected to his degrading tirades for years chipped away at my independence and sense of self-worth. I walked away from that relationship a shell of the person I was when I went into it, but it took me a long time to realize the toll that his behavior was taking on me. (Rob has denied the abuse, but Willoughby and I know what happened.)
Telling others about the abuse takes strength. Talking to family, friends, clergy, counselors and, later, the FBI, I would often find myself struggling to find the words to convey an adequate picture of the situation. When Rob’s now ex- girlfriend reached out to both Willoughby and me, she described her relationship in terms we each found familiar, immediately following up her description with “Am I crazy?” Boy, I could identify with that question.
Then there is the just-as-serious issue of being believed and supported by those you choose to tell. Sometimes people don’t believe you. Sometimes they have difficulty truly understanding what you are trying to tell them. Both Willoughby and I raised our cases with clergy. Both of us had a hard time getting them to fully address the abuse taking place. It wasn’t until I spoke to a professional counselor that I was met with understanding.
Leaving and putting the pieces of your life back together take strength. Willoughby had to obtain a protective order as she was trying to extricate herself from her marriage. I had to take an extended leave from graduate school because I was depressed and unable to complete the work. When I finally left Rob for good, my self-confidence was so destroyed that I was too scared to apply to any jobs other than that of server at a restaurant. It has taken me years to get my professional life back on track.
Victims are often with their abusers for long periods of time. They marry them, become financially intertwined with them, have children with them. There are many reasons people find it difficult to leave. The bottom line is, it takes strength to pull yourself away and start over.
I never imagined myself in the situation I’m in now - no one could have. I’m not a partisan. I’m not an activist - far from it, in fact. Willoughby and I didn’t seek to tell our stories in such a public way. Rather, others sought us out in the course of investigating Rob.
I also never imagined I would be in an abusive relationship.
Being strong - with excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts - does not inoculate a person against abuse. It doesn’t prevent her from entering into a relationship with an abuser. Abuse often doesn’t manifest itself early on - only later, when you’re in deep and behind closed doors. The really ugly side of Rob’s abuse only came out after we married, following three years of dating.
Abuse comes in many forms. It is visited on the poor and the rich, the least educated and the most, people with a strong and deep network of friends and family and those without a support structure. And an abusive nature is certainly not something most colleagues are able to spot in a professional setting, especially if they are blinded by a stellar résumé and background.
Conway’s statements were made as she was trying to address the good wishes that President Trump sent to Rob, along with his tweets seeming to call into question the allegations and the MeToo movement overall. Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders again declined to say whether the president believes Willoughby and me. While I cannot say I am surprised, I expected a woman to do better. But Conway and I definitely agree on one thing she said during that interview: “There’s a stigma and a silence surrounding all these issues. . . . Those who are in a position to do something about it ought to.”
Holderness was the first wife of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter. She wrote this for the Washington Post.